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What if zebras were blue-green with turquoise stripes?

THE old clich'e about parenting is that you never really see the world until you have kids. But what childless adult really believes that having children will help him or her see the world? A year ago, when people suggested this to me, I thought the idea was a sentimental fable concocted by grand-motherly types (as opposed to practicing grandmothers - an important dis-tinction) who liked to spend their days thinking universally cheerful thoughts about children. Little did I realize then what a difference a small green tyrannosaurus would make.

Not long into my son Nathaniel's 10th week of life, I left the green felt tyrannosaurus sitting near his head, and when I looked again he was staring intently at it as he batted it with his right hand. He was entranced. I took this as a cue: If Nathaniel thought the tyrannosaurus was special, then I owed it to him to show him just what a tyrannosaurus could do.

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For the next few weeks, until Nathaniel got bored, I made Mr. Tyrannosaurus bounce, hop, spin, bow, growl, and rocket into the air like a spaceship. I thought what I was doing was giving my son a lively introduction to life.

But it was really the other way around. My son was giving me a lively introduction to life, or rather a re-introduction.

The more I looked at what Nathaniel was looking at, the more I began to think about things I'd never before considered. As I stared at his tyrannosaurus, for example, I found myself ruminating: Why was it made of green felt instead of gray or black? Had I ever met a green animal? Why not green for animals, for that matter? Or scarlet? How far could you go? What would happen if, say, zebras were blue-green with turquoise stripes instead of just black and white?

And what about this tyranno-saurus's mouth? It had a downward cast that ought to have made it look fierce, but its little white fangs gave it a kind of cheerful fringe. Could something look so threatening that it became comical? I tried looking threatening in the mirror and discovered to my surprise that comedy is what I got. Not a great discovery, I admit, but not something I'd known before.

Meanwhile, Nathaniel had graduated to streetlights. In broad daylight in a crowded shopping center parking lot, he suddenly started to bounce up and down in his Gerry pack and make ooh-ing noises every time we passed a light post. The light didn't have to be on; it was the post that mattered. I soon discovered that, in fact, the post mattered a lot.

Dark or black aluminum posts, for example, with square or round or trapezoidal lights elicited a long soliloquy from Nathaniel, while tall, shiny metallic poles with smallish oval lamps bored him after awhile, meriting only a couple of oohs at best.

Nathaniel was pretty astute about something I'd spent my entire adult life ignoring. The tall, shiny light poles were as stodgy and utilitarian as columns in an old ledger: They lacked any imaginative design, any sense of daring. The ones Nathaniel liked were different somehow - shorter, or curiously shaped, or painted some interesting color.

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Of course, it's clear that, at four or five months, Nathaniel wasn't making aesthetic judgments about streetlights. Yet he was showing me, or rather enabling me to see, that the way things look matters. Architecture matters; design matters; the shapes and colors and size of things in our world matter, because when the design is good, the result is beauty, and beauty - like a wonderful child - brings joy to the heart.

Unfortunately, however, joy and beauty are not bottom-line commodities. And because we get what we pay for, we more often than not inhabit a world of unimaginative and even ugly light posts and office buildings and houses and fences and sidewalks and cars. We learn to inure ourselves to the appearances of things. We tell ourselves that we're adults, and as adults we have an economic responsibility that takes precedence over any other concern. Gradually we pull in our beauty sensors; we stop looking.

But kids don't stop looking. They're just starting to look, and when they look, they look at everything. I can now say that I care whether a street-light is beautiful or not; and though I'm sure Nathaniel did not intend for me to care, it's certainly because of him that I do.

And the list goes on: I notice barren or garish high-rises. I pay attention to refurbished row houses, to the gargoyles on old buildings, the handsome sleekness of airplanes, the relative merits of jade and onyx necklaces, the flecks of dirt on the garden hose, and the way applesauce looks next to spinach as opposed to chicken.

What I find, with all this looking, is that even in the most ordinary settings beauty still has a place and potency. Had I forgotten that? Or had I relegated beauty, and the importance of acknowledging its presence, to the back shop of my mind, along with other problematic ideals and sentiments?

Whatever I did, I find myself thanking my son for showing me a way out. Yes, Nathaniel's a handful, but he gives as well as takes: He gives sight to a man who'd begun to equate not looking with seeing.

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